Art can be a very therapeutic medium that can further help in the journey of healing one’s self from trauma.
Recently, I had a patient draw me a picture that clearly portrayed her feelings. Her drawing was so impactful on me that it activated me quite a bit, and put me in a deep fatigue for about 3 days.
It activated me, because of what it portrayed. Certain deep parts of me could really relate to it, and yet it was also so powerful to me, because I could see the difference in her over the few days that she had come into treatment.
In fact, the moment I saw this drawing up close, I felt a knot immediately tighten in my stomach and a heaviness come over my chest. This response, followed by about 3 days of fatigue is my typical freeze response, so I know it touched a deep part of me. It probably touched a part of me that has not yet fully healed or my body wouldn’t have reacted so strongly to it.
Because of my reaction, I have struggled whether to share this with you or not, knowing that it might have a strong effect on you as well.
However, because of the healing that this drawing can inspire, I’m sharing it with you!
Saying that, let me give you a warning and some tips. If you are activated, let it go. Don’t even read the rest of this blog! Put it away. Just step back. Push it as far enough away as you need to in order to feel like you can breathe. Be gentle and take it easy on yourself emotionally over the next several days until you feel yourself coming out of the fog.
Then, come back to it. If you react this strongly to something, there’s something there for you to peel back over and see. Take it in smaller chunks next time so that you won’t be triggered. Try to notice exactly what it is in the picture that touches you at your core.
This drawing beautifully depicts aspects of attachment trauma and healing that I want to share with you what healing looks like and remind you that healing is possible.
(My patient gave me permission to share this with you when the time was right.)
Different Inner States or Parts
This is a classic example of parts work that we can do in Attachment therapy or in therapy for any form of Trauma.
This drawing does a great job of showing the difference between inner states as it relates to Attachment Trauma.
To simplify the inner states, we talk about the different states of the nervous system, whether we’re in survival or calm mode, and if we’re in survival mode, whether it’s sympathetic or freeze mode.
However, these different inner states of the nervous system can also be seen as different parts of ourselves, and can be more useful in understanding why we go into different inner states and what is happening in those states. (Parts work is taken from Internal Family Systems model of therapy.
In this drawing, she contrasts her inner states of calm and survival mode, which for her, is the freeze mode.
As you look at this drawing, you will see that most of the drawing is taken up with open space and things that are living. She has a large green area, a large tree, open sky.
This is a great way to describe how we feel inside when we’re in the calm place in our nervous system. People will often use the word, “expansive” when describing how their chest or other parts of their bodies feel in this state of calm and security.
The little girl depicted in the picture feels happy and safe to play. She has her drawings, a swing, a jump rope, and she is comfortable in wide open space.
We are active, alive, creative, confident, and happy with ourselves and others.
Hurt Little Child Part – Frozen Survival State
Then she has drawn herself in the survival mode, represented by a little girl, herself as a child, in the far bottom corner in a box or room.
This is how many people feel when they’re in the freeze part of the survival mode. They feel lonely, sad, lost in life, and constricted so much so that they just want to curl up.
They don’t feel safe in life, and having too much open space makes them more scared. They minimize the amount of things they do and the people they see because of feeling scared and insecure.
There is no open space in their lives, but nor do they feel secure in open space when they are in the freeze response. They’re overwhelmed with life, and they look for tinier, enclosed spaces. This is where they feel safer.
It’s a way for them to keep better track of the environment around them.
Their bodies are shutting down as part of the freeze response. Therefore, it’s easier easier to remain safe when they’re alone and in a place no one can see.
However, then they also feel lonely, sad, and lost.
It’s an awful place to be, and yet one feels stuck in their box because of the overwhelming circumstances of their life.
Overwhelm and Parts
When we are overwhelmed as an early child from the lack of adequate emotional connection and regulation by our caregivers (really, our biological mom), we develop this part of ourselves that can be represented by a little hurt child.
This part is very young. As we grow physically, we still carry this very young part inside, and as long as they don’t get the healing that they need, they will stay very young. That means they will do some very immature things even though it may now have an adult body!
We are going to be constrained in a box. Both our emotions and our actions will be constrained.
While we may not be in a physical box that is restricting us, our box is our head, our thoughts, and our emotions that go round and round.
When we’re stuck in our box of trauma, our ability to play and enjoy life will be limited. Our range of emotions will be limited and we won’t have the degree of joy and happiness that others will have even though we’re doing the same thing as everyone else around us.
Understanding ourselves through this lens of part, helps us figure out why we do some of these immature or crazy things, or have really strong emotional responses to circumstances that we don’t think are normal.
We can become great friends with all the different parts of ourselves. Usually, a person will come to hate certain aspects of parts that they have, because of finding themselves feeling or doing things they don’t want to feel or do.
Even though the nervous system is what is biologically imbalanced in persistent symptoms after trauma, parts work can be a great place to start to aid in the healing process!
There are stuck parts of ourselves that need healing! In attachment trauma, we’ll have other parts as well, but we’ll also always have this hurt, scared little child part. A very little child.
By starting with parts work in our healing journey, it can be helpful to us to grasp the concept and actions required of self-care and “healing the inner child” that many talk about in the attachment world.
Parts work is a great place to start with healing the nervous system if you don’t know what else to do, especially because it can be harder to understand the aspects of “Healing the nervous system.”
Art is a great place to start! It can even help you identify the different parts and feelings of yourself when you don’t have the words or find that words are just getting in the way. There are even Trauma-Informed Expressive Art Therapy programs!
Parts and Addiction
My patient who shared her drawing with me had come in for treatment for an addiction to pain pills.
It’s very common for those addicted to pain pills to have had these feelings of being lost, sad, and lonely for a long time.
In fact, having these feelings, whether from attachment trauma or other trauma, sets a person up to develop an addiction to pain pills or other substances to calm down those feelings and inner states.
It seems we underestimate the degree to which we are affected when we feel sad, lonely, and especially lost in life.
It’s a big stress, and one that usually causes us to feel overwhelmed by life and then to shut down.
This shutting down is also known as the freeze response (one of the two different survival states of the brain and body). It’s one that is characterized by little to no hope of life ever becoming better and happier.
Both substances and addictive behaviors, especially eating disorders can help us numb these uncomfortable feelings
Word of Caution
I most heartily encourage drawing as a regular part of your activities on your journey to healing from attachment trauma! However, that comes with a warning and a word of caution.
Activities like drawing are very therapeutic, because drawing engages parts of the brain that doesn’t depend on words or verbal communication for expression of feelings and pain.
This is dangerous for someone who has a lot of stuffed and numbed feelings and pain over the years and hasn’t started the process of opening this box in other ways with other people.
My first warning is that if this is the first time you’re opening this box of stuffed feelings, you can easily feel overpowered and overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings that surface.
If you do not have a person or a group of people to whom to turn for support and help, this can be dangerous and can make you go back into your shell, convinced even more to never open that box.
My recommendation is to start with a structured art program or art journal program, whether online or with someone in-person. This structure will help keep some organization to the messy feelings that are about to pour out.
The art program doesn’t even need to be in regards to trauma, though knowing you, you want to heal as fast as possible and you don’t want to waste your time doing anything trivial or something that won’t heal you as fast as possible!
I understand that desire to heal as quickly as possible, but I have also seen and experienced tremendous setbacks and relapses when a person opens up things too fast. It’s possible to be re-traumatized during the healing process if we push our system to do too much too fast.
My second warning is in regards to the bigger picture of healing from attachment trauma.
Art is great! This whole blog is about how great art is for uncovering parts and feelings to help us understand better and heal faster.
However, healing from attachment trauma can never be done in isolation or by ourselves. We can do some work by ourselves, but attachment trauma is only truly healed in relationships.
By using the art to go deeper into relationships is a great way to use the art therapy as a tool in healing from attachment trauma.
It’s also a great way to maintain a daily journal and clearing out of any building negative emotions.
However, art can never by itself, be a substitute for a relationship in the process of healing from attachment trauma.
Are you aware of the different parts of ourselves?
Do you know what it feels like to be out of the box of trauma and into freedom and open space?
Most people never do the hard work of healing to get into the calm and secure state where they can be happy, joyous, and free.
It’s hard work, and very scary to start leaving the small world of our trauma box where yes, we have felt lonely, sad, and lost, but it has felt like a buffer against life and the world.
Whether you are also dealing with an addiction, an expansive internal state is what healing means for those with attachment trauma.
This freedom is available to all, and I encourage you to be one of the few who will reach for it and is brave enough to start questioning the trauma box in which you are in.
Maybe get involved with a group, do some art, and start expanding your emotions and life little steps at a time.
To Your Health and Healing,